If the swamps of Central Florida are hog-hunting heaven, William "Hoppy" Kempfer is a sporting Saint Peter -- greeting bowhunters at the gate and welcoming them to porcine paradise.
For the past 17 years, Kempfer's Osceola Outfitters has offered fully guided hunts on the family's 25,000-acre ranch just outside St. Cloud. Although the sprawling property offers excellent bowhunting opportunities for Osceola turkeys, whitetail deer and alligators, Kempfer said it is the world-class feral hog hunting that draws the majority of his clientele.
"Growing up as kids, and all through our lives, we had trapped and hunted hogs," Kempfer said. "We were just trying to exterminate them and never even gave it any thought that anyone would pay to come to Florida to shoot a hog. Now, I am guessing 70 percent of my income comes from hog hunts."
As I learned during my July 2011 visit to Osceola Outfitters, there are several very good reasons Kempfer's hog hunts are so popular. The pig population is robust, there's no closed season on private land and success rates are high. For the money, stalking a group of hogs with bow in hand is about as much pure fun as you can have with
archery gear. And did I mention a 100-pound "meat hog" is about the tastiest thing you'll ever kill with your bow and arrow?
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For out-of-town bowhunters visiting Osceola Outfitters, the trip usually begins with a flight to Orlando and an easy, 45-minute drive south to Kempfer's ranch. With all due respect to the hordes of tourists who flock to see the mouse who shall not be named, bowhunters will much prefer a visit to Osceola Outfitters, which could accurately be described as "The Hoggiest Place on Earth."
When traveling to far-flung hunting destinations, sometimes just getting there is half the battle. Such was the case on this trip with a group of friends from the archery industry. After boarding my flight from Harrisburg, Pa., to Orlando, we were just pushing off from the gate when we heard a loud thunk and felt the jet lurch backward. The hitch on the little Tug cart that pushes the plane out onto the tarmac broke, allowing the cart to slam into the front landing gear. I've had my share of air-travel mishaps, but I must say that was a first!
To make a long story short, I joined my fellow passengers back in the terminal, where we waited several hours while mechanics repaired the damage. By the time I finally made it to Orlando and drove to the lodge that evening, everyone else had long since settled in and supper was cold. Most importantly (as you'll soon learn), I missed the pre-hunt meeting outlining the ground rules for our hunt.
The following morning, I donned some lightweight camouflage, doused my face and cap with mosquito repellent (after all, we were hunting in a swamp, in Florida, in July!), grabbed my Hoyt Maxxis and headed out with guide Jimmy Roseman in search of hogs.
For the sake of my storytelling, I'd like to tell you we walked 10 miles that morning and worked our collective rear end off to find some pigs. But the truth of the matter is, we hadn't been gone from camp 10 minutes or driven more than a few miles down the vast network of sandy ranch roads when Jimmy spotted a lone pig feeding several hundred yards in front of us. He quickly pulled his pickup to the shoulder, we slipped out of the cab as silently as possible and the stalk was on.
Now, for those unversed in the ways of hog hunting, you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your quarry. Pigs can't see very well, their hearing is only average and -- unlike other animals such as deer and turkeys -- don't tend to pay a whole lot of attention to what's happening around them when they are relaxed and feeding. That said, the great equalizer is a hog's nose, which simply cannot be beaten. As long as you can keep the wind in your favor, keep noise to a minimum and pick your spots to move, slipping within bow range of wild hogs is entirely possible. But let one of those porkers get so much as one whiff of your scent and it's game over! You know you're busted when you hear a telltale grunt, followed immediately by a mad rush of pigs headed to the next county.
But, as luck would have it on this morning, the wind was in our favor, the hogs were busy rooting for breakfast among the palmettos, and plenty of lush foliage between them and us shielded our approach. Only a few minutes after leaving the truck, the first hog showed itself, obliviously feeding its way in our direction at a distance of perhaps 30 yards. Drawing my bow, taking careful aim and squeezing my release, I watched as the shaft skewered the boar in the mid-section. It was at that moment that I fully appreciated the meaning of "squealing like a stuck pig," and Jimmy and I were literally forced to jump aside as the mortally wounded boar sprinted directly toward us and off into the bush!
Despite all the commotion, we could tell by the sounds emanating from the palmettos that the main group of hogs was still preoccupied with feeding. So, I quickly nocked another arrow and we continued our slow approach. It wasn't long before we spotted another lone hog feeding on the opposite side of the ranch road from where the main group was located. Slipping through the brush to the road opening where I could get a clear shot, I sent another shaft on its way, watching it hit home and following the pig's progress as it scampered off away from the main group.
With two hogs down, I then nocked a third arrow and we headed back into the palmettos after the main group, which was still carrying on with a steady series of grunts, snorts and squeals just 10-20 yards away. Moving as close as we dared without spooking them, we could see occasional flashes of black as the hogs moved in the brush, and when a pair of pigs emerged in the small opening where we stood, I picked out the most obvious target and arrowed my third pig of the morning at a distance of perhaps six yards!
At the shot, the hog squealed and ran directly through the main group, sounding the alarm and sending them all crashing off through the jungle-like tangle of vegetation. With the hogs gone and the oppressive summertime Florida sun rapidly climbing in the sky, the hunt was effectively over. But what an exciting morning it had been! Although hogs will never rival species such as deer and elk on the glamour scale, that morning will always rank among the most exciting and enjoyable of my bowhunting career.
Over the course of the next hour, we retrieved all three hogs (which turned out to be a trio of nice boars), held a brief photo session and loaded them into the back of Jimmy's pickup for the short drive back to camp. Upon arriving at the lodge, the rest of the hunters filtered out and peered into the pickup bed with jaws agape.
"Who killed all these?" someone asked.
"Who do you think?" I replied, strutting about like a rooster with his comb held high.
"I thought we were only allowed two hogs," said another.
"Well, no one told me!" I protested.
Remember the meeting I missed the previous evening? Well, apparently that's when everyone was informed about the two-hog limit, and no one thought to fill me in upon my arrival; which, as far as I was concerned, was just fine. That three-hour delay resulted in a third boar for yours truly. As the old saying goes, it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I had a year's supply of pork barbeque on the ground, and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it!
Hogs Any Way
Since I was already over the proverbial limit, I spent the next two days accompanying my friends afield with cameras in tow, shooting photographs and videos as they proceeded to stack up hogs via any method at their disposal. Some sat treestands set up by feeders. Others continued to spot and stalk, while still others took the opportunity to run them down with the aid of Kempfer's dogs. At Osceola Outfitters, it seems there is no limit to the hogs -- or ways to pursue them.
By the time our three-day porkfest was finished, our group of eight bowhunters had put 14 pigs on the ground. Just as importantly, we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the process.
With so many hog hunters visiting Osceola Outfitters each year, it was hard to believe how many hogs everyone saw and how much hog sign litters the property. I asked Kempfer about this, and he explained that with so much lush habitat, hog numbers in the region are simply out of control.
"What you've got to realize," he said, "is that we've got 25,000 acres here, but there's close to a million acres around us that's undeveloped, uninhabited ground. It's just crazy the numbers that are here. They just continue to filter in, and they reproduce so fast its unbelievable."
Like I said, hog heaven.